Rabbi Stephanie Kolin – Shabbat Terumah 5783
Earlier this week, I needed to go into Manhattan, so I walked over to Atlantic to get the 4/5. As I made my way up to the platform, I noticed that there were four or five people standing on the stairs – one person every two or three steps. I figured maybe the platform was full to overflowing, as it can sometimes be, but when I got to the top – I saw that there were some people there, but it wasn’t particularly crowded. I looked back over my shoulder and I realized – these individuals on the stairs were all Asian women and when the train arrived, they each ascended to the platform and boarded the train. And I realized that they were standing there for their own safety.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased immensely this year and subway violence against Asians – and others – has risen with it. I imagine that being in the stairwell helped these women feel a little safer in a place where someone might seek to harm them simply because of who they are. I haven’t been able to shake this image all week.
In related news, as you may have heard, White Supremacist groups across the country have declared today, February 25th, a national day of hate, specifying that the enemy of the American people is “the Jew,” and promising to make public trouble in observance of the day. It’s a bold move to call for a “day of hate” – as if they feel no need to cloak their intentions in metaphor or even plausible deniability.
I imagine this brings up a lot of different emotions and reactions. We could feel afraid. We could feel angry. We could feel exhausted. And I’m sure some of us have some even better words we’d like to use about how we feel.
But also – Torah guides us toward another way we might respond in a moment such as this.
This week, we read parshat Terumah. We’re still hanging out at the foot of Mount Sinai when the whole community is instructed to come together to build the Mishkan, which is kind of like a portable tiny house. Each person in the encampment of 600,000+ people brings whatever beautiful and precious gifts they each have to contribute to it – colorful thread, fabrics, gems, gold, silver, copper, dolphin skins, and wood – which are then pieced together by artisans and builders.
When we eventually set out on our forty year journey, the Mishkan is at the front, and whenever we camp, it is set down at the very center of our wandering community, while the tribes encircle it with their tents. And at the center of the Mishkan, is its holiest part – the ark containing the stone tablets, on which burn the words of the covenant that God just made with us.
Now here’s the most relevant part. We’re given instructions for how to build the cover of that ark. The text says: Build it with two cherubim, two angels, perched over the ark, ufneihem ish el achiv. Most English translations will render this: the angels should confront each other. But that’s not what the text says. It says: their faces should be ish el achiv, like a man looking at his brother. And in that space – between the gaze of these two angels, God says: that is where I will meet with you.
God could show up anywhere. In any nook or cranny, on any mountain top or valley low, literally anywhere, but chooses to manifest a divine connection to humanity where? In the space between two faces who look at each other as if they are brothers, sisters, siblings.
This is a huge detail that Torah drops for us here. In order to find God – or if you’d rather – holiness, or goodness, or something more than ourselves – we are to seek in the face of the other, the face of our brother.
Now, not every relationship with an actual sibling is perfect or without conflict – of course. But to see another person as your brother, your sister, your sibling – connotes an accountability, a relationship that has a claim on us, that is elevated, that reflects ourselves back to us – and that obligates us to pay attention to that person and see in them someone we could feel compassion for, empathy, certainly humanity, possibly even love. That’s where God is.
Okay, but maybe you’re thinking – that’s really neat, but maybe it’s just coincidence that this language is here in the text. And, really, what does that tell us about how to respond to a day of hate targeting the Jewish people, anyway?
Well, as it turns out, there is a greater context for this particular language. See, not long before this moment – less than a year earlier, this same people was in Egypt, living through the chaos of ten destructive plagues. Had we been living at this time, hearing the instruction to build the cover of the ark with the angels ish el achiv, our memories would have taken us back into the penultimate, 9th, plague. When “Moses held his arm toward the sky and choshech afeilah, a thick darkness, descended on all of the Egyptian enslavers. It was so heavy, the text says: lo ra’u ish et achiv – a man could not see his brother. Or as many modern commentators understand this, the darkness was a reflection of how our enslavers could not see another human being as their brother, as a person with humanity, a person worth their compassion, their empathy, their love. And that inability to see another as their brother manifested the plague of darkness.
Lo ra’u ish et achiv OR ufneihem ish el achiv. The inability to see another as our brother creates between us only darkness. But facing the other and seeing them as if they are our brother – manifests God’s presence in that space – not darkness, but light. In this parsha, we are asked to construct the thing that is the opposite, the antidote, to the hate we once knew. To replace apathy with empathy, and antipathy with love.
So back to this call for a day of hate: No thank you. It’s a call that tries to drag us back to an ancient time, a different worldview where lo ra’u ish et achiv. A scourge of dehumanizing antisemitism that has rippled through far too many generations, but does not merit a place in any of them.
Because early on in our journey, our hands still full of the building materials for the Mishkan, our tradition urged us to be like the angels who sit, ish el achiv, and there manifest goodness and love. For after the 9th plague of darkness, comes the tenth and with it death and destruction and weeping, but after we build the Mishkan, it fills with God’s presence and we march toward a redemptive horizon. So we reject this day of hate and we claim it instead for a day of love.
So what might we do on a day of love? Lots of things. Love being Jewish today. Wear the biggest Jewish star you can find. Read a Jewish book you haven’t read yet! Eat a Jewish food new to you. And if you are not Jewish, tell a Jewish person that you’ll get their back if they need it. That you know we are all in this together. Tell a child in your life that you believe in them. Tell a teacher you are grateful for them. Ask your neighbor about their holiday that isn’t yours. Invite them to your Passover seder. Pack a lunch or a scarf or money for an unhomed person you see on the street and when you put it in their hand, look into their eyes and see they are your brother. If you see someone waiting on the subway steps for fear they will be a target, stand up for them and tell them you care about them. And see in their faces a sister who you would do anything to protect. Laugh today with someone who looks nothing like you and grew up nothing like you and see in their eyes someone worthy of your love as you are worthy of theirs. Just because you are a person gazing into the face of another person. And feel it build between you – an ancient rhythm of divinity and humanity begin to vibrate between you, feel that there is more now in the world, more healing, more hope, more goodness, because you have chosen to see in each other’s eyes, your brother, your sister, your sibling, and holiness heard you and found you there.
This is a serious moment, it’s not an isolated moment, and it won’t be solved in one day, and ALSO small groups of people living in darkness do not get to take us with them. May we amplify love today, and tomorrow, and the next day, on this journey through the wilderness, face to face, sisters and brothers and siblings rejecting hate as one. Shabbat shalom.